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Oakland Cemetery’s Early Landscapes: Researching And Re-Landscaping The African American Grounds

Oakland Cemetery’s Early Landscapes: Researching and Re-Landscaping the African American Grounds

One of the past year’s landscape restoration projects at Oakland has been the southern portion of the African American Grounds. As with all restoration projects, garden history research on the area and its families was conducted to guide the design. Historical observations of Oakland’s trees, shrubs, and flowers were relatively infrequent and then short on the sort of specific detail one would like for landscape restoration. A handful of period photographs provide the basis for the majority of the areas of the cemetery where whites are buried. Unfortunately, photographs of the African American Grounds are not to be had. There are more photographs and newspaper articles addressing Potter’s Field and its indigent burials than records addressing the section where wealthier African Americans paid to be buried. Thus, other historical sources must be used to provide inferences for how families landscaped African American Grounds.

Other historic African American cemeteries provide some general landscape data. Turning to Atlanta’s South-View Cemetery for comparison, exceedingly little appears in the local newspapers. Since its 1886 founding until the early 1900s, South-View appears in only one article in The Constitution. Published in 1895, the newspaper article details a cemetery of strong contrasts. Some areas near South-View’s front gates were well-tended by loving hands; loved ones were commemorated by marble markers, but no mention was made of planted shrubs or flowers. However, according to the article, large areas of the cemetery were quite mournful, suggestive of neglect if not abandonment, ornamented only by weeds and decaying floral arrangements.

Dr. W.E.B. DuBois’ photograph of an unidentified Georgia cemetery.

What the “well-cared-for” lots marked by handsome marble may have looked like comes by way of an unidentified Georgia cemetery at the close of the 19th century. W.E.B. Du Bois took the photo for his “American Negro” exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Through more than 360 photographs, the exhibit showcased the everyday lives of black Georgians at the turn of the century; Oakland resident Thomas Askew was among the photographers whose work was included in “American Negro.

Dr. DuBois’ photograph reveals a tidy, small cemetery enclosed by a whitewashed wood fence, with understory trees scattered throughout. A few lots are either bordered by low hedges or ornamented by small shrubs, in keeping with the general landscape aesthetic found at smaller cemeteries of the period.

The first guidepost of information for Oakland’s African American families appears in the new Cemetery Commission’s report to the City Council in 1907. Coming at a time when the newly appointed Commission chair was strongly determined to overhaul the cemetery, he was quite pleased to report that the African American “portion of the cemetery was in a most unsightly condition, but it has been greatly improved and now presents a decent appearance to the great gratification of the families, who are taking an interest in the cemetery for the first time, and are expressing a desire to beautify their ground.”

While seemingly late, this coincides with the rise of a financially well-off black middle class in Atlanta. It may simply have taken this long for families to have the wherewithal to spend money on cemetery plants, or for ornamental gardening to become a pastime in the community. The chairman’s statement and this timeframe of the early 1900s then become the starting point for landscape research on how the African American families at Oakland may have landscaped their lots, their aesthetic tastes and plant preferences.

Regarding landscape preferences in Atlanta’s black community in the early 1900s, tidbits peek from the pages of The Constitution, but the real touchstone comes from a study by Atlanta University students led by W.E.B. Du Bois.

A c. 1899 photograph of Bishop Holsey’s house. Courtesy Library of Congress.

As most of Atlanta’s black community was not well-off, vegetable and ornamental gardening was a luxurious pursuit for the few, or at least not on the minds of many. In 1900 it was estimated that 60 percent of Atlanta’s black community resided in structures without a yard. Yet in 1903, an article in The Constitution penned by Oakland resident and physician Henry Rutherford Butler encouraged the community to do just that, garden: “Let us then dig up our gardens and plant them. Plant flowers in our front yards…. I saw Bishop H. M. Turner working in his garden last Wednesday. Bishop L. H. Holsey, on Auburn avenue [sic], has the finest garden in Atlanta, without any exception. He spends much of his time at home in his garden. The example set by these men should inspire many other men who are younger and who have much more time than they.”

In the Library of Congress’ collection is a circa 1899 photograph of Bishop Holsey’s house. Dominating the small front yard are two ornamental circular flower beds with tall plants in the centers. Three years earlier, Dr. Butler had encouraged South-View lot owners to keep their relatives’ graves “clean and green.” It is tempting to speculate that Dr. Butler may have indulged in ornamental gardening along with Bishop Holsey.

A 1908 photo of a vine-encased family home, taken from Dr. W.E.B. DuBois’ photo survey.

Another set of clues come from two “human interest” pieces on Carrie Steele, locally renowned for her work with Atlanta’s black orphans. An 1888 article describes her domicile:

“There’s a pretty little cottage on the corner of Wheat and Calhoun streets. There are vines around the porch, and even in this December weather a few violets and some late chrysanthemums still linger in the neat little garden.”

Vines were a favorite way for southerners to provide cooling shade, as shade trees were rarely planted close to the house. A number of photographs documenting Atlanta’s slum row houses – with not a tree to be seen – show one or two domiciles with vine-engulfed porches. Too, chrysanthemums were becoming wildly popular in Atlanta by this time. A number of the town’s wealthiest were erecting greenhouses to grow their favorite flower in abundance, with the first chrysanthemum flower show held at the Capitol rotunda in 1889.

In 1890, with donations from many in town, Mrs. Steele leased a parcel of land from the city and erected an orphanage. A second article in 1897 focused more on the orphans themselves and their lives under Mrs. Steele’s wing. The piece mentions the children working in the vegetable garden, “while the majority climb the cherry trees after the luscious fruit or hid in the grape vines…”

Details on how those in the community gardened can be gleaned from a sociological study of Atlanta’s African Americans, conducted by the students of Atlanta University in 1907-1908. Published in 1908, The Negro American Family included a strong component on the city’s housing conditions for blacks, from Atlanta’s very poorest to its wealthiest members. As part of the study, the students engaged in a representative sampling survey of 32 residences and in-depth surveying of eight residences, even noting the condition of the front yards. Of the eight houses, one had flowers, a second had flower beds divided by cleanly swept walks, and a third had a rose bush and a peach tree. The survey is accompanied by 32 photographs by W.E.B. DuBois, depicting houses around town and illustrating everything from row house slums to simple cottages to the grandest house in town. While a number of Dr. DuBois’ photographs illustrate a few houses with front yard gardens, there’s no information recorded as to what these gardeners grew.

To infer what gardeners may have grown, an interesting book provides some hints. The Negro School and its Relation to the Community, published in 1915 by the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, is an amazingly comprehensive reference and guide to building and operating a school where no such community resource exists. Among other topics addressed are how to plant ornamental flower beds, landscape designs for the teacher’s residence, use of spring bulbs to line the school walks, and vines for fences and front porches. Hedges were to divide work and play areas on the school grounds and ornament the teacher’s cottage, although the recommended Chinese privet and Macartney rose are some of the most invasive plants in the south today.

1915 photo of the teacher’s cottage.

The ornamental gardening recommendations were simple. The flower bed was to be circular, set in the front lawn, and composed of two varieties. A tall plant was to dominate the bed for summer flowering, such as cannas or oleanders. A lower flower such as lantana was to edge the bed for contrasting color, as it was noted: “Border planting for flowers is becoming quite popular.” Flower beds could similarly be made of just spring bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, and lilies, while “Vincas are among the best bloomers, and can be used for the entire bed or borders.” Winter flower beds could be planted of pansies, petunias, and creeping phlox. For border beds along fences or open lawn, shasta daisies and bananas were an option. Shrubs were to be planted around the edges of the open lawn or as anchor specimen plants to the teacher’s cottage.

Suitable varieties included crepe myrtle, wild crab apple, sweet shrub, azalea, hydrangea, calico bush (a type of mountain laurel), roses, and Grancy Gray Beard. Native trees could be dug from nearby forests such as dogwood and wild plum. Granted, the recommended plants lists are tailored for a warmer climate than Atlanta’s, they nevertheless provide further insight as to how the southern African American community may have been guided in ornamental gardening and what a suitable plant palate would be.

One of the last pieces of evidence to be researched was the 1949 aerial photograph series of the City of Atlanta. Digitized by Georgia State University, this high-resolution image captured a number of trees and shrubs in Oakland’s African American Grounds, and hints at other landscape elements. The lack of large tree cover in the southern portion was particularly fortuitous for not obscuring smaller ornamental plantings. Combined with a bulb survey of Oakland conducted in 2003, which found numerous lots with surviving daffodils delineating lot lines and gracing headstones, an informed rough picture of the family-planted landscape as it appeared in 1949 was reached.

Yet time stands still for no gardener. Additional burials have been added since 1949; some trees grew mightily, casting shade; a few died; and many of the bulbs surviving in 2003 continued to dwindle. Armed with newspaper articles, period photographs, reference books, and surviving family plants, an inspired re-envisioning of the southern area of the African American Ground’s landscape has been embarked upon. While the landscape restoration plan draws upon the available direct evidence and inferred guideposts, long-term maintenance needs and current landscape conditions have tempered the plant variety selections.

Where possible, original hedge lines shown in the 1949 aerial have been re-created. The design motifs suggested in the Tuskegee Institute’s guide have been incorporated along with some of the suggested plants. Other plants used follow from the surviving plants on the African American Grounds (such as daffodils and glossy abelia shrubs), from other areas of the cemetery (such as boxwood and curly ligustrum for hedges), and  from plants described in newspaper articles.

Thus, Carrie Steele’s old-fashioned yard chrysanthemums are scattered about, either as cradle plantings or as borders. Large circles of daffodils are intermixed with daylilies for spring and summer interest, while annuals such as pansies provide spots of winter color. A nearby weeping cherry keeps Ms. Steele company, daffodils fringe walkways and lots, and hydrangeas flank headstones. Vinca minor, often called “cemetery myrtle,” has been introduced in shaded spots to help control erosion as well as enliven what was once open dirt. Thanks to the numerous volunteers and donors who have contributed their financial resources and hard sweat equity, a new, inspired garden spot is being created for Oakland and its African American families. With continued support to expand restoration efforts, the African American Grounds will bloom for years to come.

Sara L. Van Beck

Sara Van Beck is a member of Historic Oakland Foundation’s gardens team. She is a leading daffodil authority and author of Daffodils in American Gardens: 1733-1940.

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